Archive for the “Sermons” Category

A sermon based on 1 Samuel 17:32-49 & Mark 4:35-41

Today we find ourselves with two of the most famous stories in the Bible. Ones we have heard over and over again. The Old Testament gives us David and Goliath, that epic tale of the shepherd boy who took on the mighty giant. It’s a story we have grown up with. A story we love. A story we tell to our children about the brave wee boy who faced up to the mighty giant.

The Gospel gives us Jesus calming a storm. Again, it’s a story we have heard often, although we mostly hear the versions where Jesus comes walking on the water in the middle of the night. Luke even has Peter getting out of the boat and joining in until he notices the waves and sinks.

So, what are we to make of these familiar stories? What does placing them together like this allow us to see? What can they offer up to us in our world so very different to that of kings and armies and boy shepherds and giant warriors? Our world seems so very far from the days of the miracles and wonders of Jesus.

Except our context isn’t so very different, is it?

Again and again we find ourselves at war, standing face-to-face with another giant, another group of people who are different from us, who for reasons we don’t really understand end up on the opposing side, there to be fought, to be defeated.

And that, for me at least, is one of the difficulties with this story of the shepherd boy and the giant. We take sides. God takes sides. The giant warrior Goliath and his Philistine army are bad. They are evil. They are the enemy. That kind of labelling sticks around for a long time. We still call uncultured people ‘Philistines’ today. How’s that for a bit of latent racism?

This was almost a sermon about armour that fits. That’s the easy sermon for today. We look at little David trying to wear the armour of the great king Saul and we see that it doesn’t fit. The armour weighs the little shepherd boy down. It restricts his movement and limits his reach. It’s a great sermon for a church which feels threatened and insecure, who look around and see a scary world where the enemy is all around and where the great secular giant stands taunting us to come out and fight.

We could talk about casting off the past, freeing ourselves from the traditions that bind us, hold us down and keep us from reaching beyond our walls. We could see our traditions and doctrines as the armour of the past that no longer fits us, but it’s all that we have. Without the armour we are exposed and open to attack.

We could see ourselves as the underdogs. Just one well placed stone fired from our slings and the giant will be vanquished and everything will be wonderful.

We could sing some more hymns of war-like triumph like Fight the Good Fight… How about Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before? All too often that’s exactly where this story takes us… We watch with the Israelites as the shepherd boy walks out with his sling and some stones, we quake as the giant Goliath laughs at his puny opponent, we hold our breath as the pebble flies, time standing still as it strikes the mark, and we explode with joy as the giant falls to the ground. Victory is ours. Our God is greater than your god. We’re better than you.

And we hardly even notice that we are sucked into a never-ending cycle of violence.   This week this took the form of a white man walking into a prayer meeting in a black church in North Carolina and murdering nine people as they prayed for peace to God, the same God in whose name untold violence has been done across the centuries. There will be cries for the gunman to be executed, as though an eye for an eye is justice rather than revenge, but it seems that the most startling and most difficult thing to understand is a victim’s children expressing their forgiveness and love for the person who shot their mother. That’s what’s missing from the story of David and Goliath. We rationalise a violent story as being about overcoming adversity or winning against the odds. David stepping out and making peace with Goliath would be a story worth holding in such high esteem.

So, let’s step away from the murder of one larger man by another smaller one, as though it is some kind of example of faith. Let’s look instead at the contrast between that story and the example of God’s Son, Jesus, as we find it in our Gospel reading today.

This story of the storm comes at the end of a tumultuous day for Jesus. Earlier he had been brought news that his cousin John the Baptist had been murdered by Herod.

There’s a moment of temptation there. Remember when Jesus goes off into the wilderness after his baptism by John? After 40 days alone he is tempted, tested. Power and dominion are part of the test. Just say the word and all this can be yours. But Jesus doesn’t want it. Rely on God. That’s where real power lies. So there will be no armed rebellion with Jesus riding on a great white horse in shining armour at the head of the people’s liberation army. There will be no revenge. Herod will meet his maker at another time and in a different way but Jesus will not take up arms.

Instead Jesus tries to find somewhere peaceful to grieve for his cousin. Instead followed and surrounded by thousands of people. He feeds them all with a few loaves and some fish and heals the sick. He chooses to restore people to health and wholeness.

Again we read that Jesus tries to get some peace and heads out in a boat with the disciples as evening falls. He’s exhausted and is soon asleep in the back of the boat.

A gale blows up and soon the water is crashing over the sides, swamping the boat. The disciples are terrified and start to panic. They call on Jesus for help. “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

Peace! Be still.

Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

It’s interesting that in the face of the gale and swollen waves that Jesus chooses to speak peace. Peace. He rebuked the wind and waves in their violence and chaos and brought peace.

It happens again and again in the Gospels. Jesus never once harms someone. He heals hundreds and feeds thousands. He talks of service and humility. He speaks about forgiveness, not just the moving past a small hurt but the difficulty of facing pain and suffering and choosing peace and lasting justice built on the restoration of relationship and community.

And still we choose David, the warrior poet, rather than Jesus, the healer and peacemaker, as our preferred model. Perhaps it’s just easier to see ourselves in the flawed humanity of David than the perfection of Jesus. But to do that means we don’t take seriously the fully human Jesus. We make him into some kind of sterilised angelic being, gliding through the world in sparkling white robes that new improved Daz could only dream of. We don’t see Jesus wading through the mud and garbage of the world with the rest of us.

We see only the glory of Jesus on the cross and forget that it was humanity’s love of power and violence that put him there.

There are many giants to be slayed.

God’s word is not safe,

it is dangerous.

It’s not benign,

it is powerful.

It encourages action and dissent

and sounds an alarm for us

to take up its challenge

and fight the monsters of today.

 

And in that call to action there is a choice

Always the same choice

Do we strap on our ill-fitting armour

draw our swords

and march out to slay

our giants,

those ideas that scare us,

those people who are not like us

and don’t like us?

 

Or do we stand in the face of the storm

and confidently,

faithfully,

speak the words of Jesus:

 

Peace! Be still!

For God does not dwell in the past,

and these stories do not remain on the page.

 

Will we continue to stand in amazement and look with awe upon the Son of God who commands even the wind and the waves but we still fail to hear the words he speaks to us:

Why are you afraid? After all that we have seen. After all that He has done. Have you still no faith? Are you still afraid? Peace! Be still.

 

The Good News is a living word

that speaks in every age,

that calls on God’s people

to rise to new challenges,

to seek new ways,

to love and to serve

all God’s people,

not just some of them.

 

Amen

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This is my sermon from today, Pentecost 2013, preached at Dunfermline United Reformed Church.  The readings the sermon is based on are Acts2:1-21 and John 14:8-17.

As always, your comments and thoughts are very welcome.

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Spill-Issue-7-Cover-460

It has been quite some feat by the Spill the Beans Team to pull this off over the festive season, but after a crazy deadline of 31 December for all the writing, the next issue of Spill the Beans is now beautifully formed and available for download. This is the Lent to Pentecost edition that sees us from 17 February all the way to 19 May 2013! And this edition is not limited just to Sundays, you also get ideas for each day of Holy Week too. It is a large issue.

Inside you will find worship ideas and resources, including Bible notes, stories, prayers, reflections, music suggestions, and more, and for age groups you will find suggestions for activities, crafts, games and teen discussion resources.

If you have already used Spill the Beans, you will know what a great resource this is, created by folks here in Scotland. If you haven’t, but are intrigued, have a look at this sample.

If you’d like to download a full copy of Issue 7 for use in your church or personally, then click the button below. It is a positive steal at only £12. You can make a secure payment via PayPal and then an email with secure link to the download should wing its way to you.

Please follow the instructions carefully. The Adobe pdf file is approximately 4 MB.

Buy Now and Download

You can also get involved in feedback and discussion on the Spill the Beans blog, where we try to put up weekly PowerPoint backgrounds too.

If you would like a print copy of Spill the Beans, Issue 6, then this can be arranged. The cost is £20+P&P and these can be arranged directly with the office at Lanark Greyfriars Church. Each issue is in full colour and comb bound for ease of use. We have had to raise the costs of the print copy from our initial issues as we have found the original costs were not covering the costs of producing the copies.

If you would like to order copies (which are all printed to order so there may be a few days to wait before you receive yours) then you can email office [at] lanarkgreyfriars [dot] com with your order details. An invoice will be issued after dispatch of your order. If you prefer you can contact Greyfriars Church Office on 01555 661510 and place your order over the phone.

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Incarnation.  Taking on flesh.  God slipping into skin.  Or that wonderful image from John’s Gospel of the Word moving into the neighbourhood.

What a amazing image.  Isn’t it?

It’s hard to get your head around it though, that God would bother.  That God would be so vulnerable, so tiny, so frail, so dependant.

There are so many other ways that God could have chosen to sort the world out.  He could have become a king, an emperor, a Caesar and ruled over all the world with power and military might.

But that’s not what God chose.

God chose the least.  The very least. A poor, unmarried teenager.  Most of us wouldn’t trust a teenager with a doll… but God isn’t most of us.  Mary said ‘yes’.  That was good enough for God to trust her with everything.

Luke is so matter of fact about it all…

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

God chose the very least of places.  Jerusalem is just up the road.  The capital.  The city on a hill.  The shining heart of a religious kingdom.  The Temple, the Holy of Holies… but God chose somewhere else.  Bethlehem.  Even the prophet Micha calls Bethlehem the runt of the litter.

What a place to start something new.

What a place to change everything.

We often talk about doing what Jesus would do or trying to work out what God’s priorities are, but we should know.  Our problem isn’t that God hasn’t spelt it out for us.  Our problem is that we so often try our best to avoid the hard bits, the difficult places and the awkward situations where we come face to face with the least.  We avoid those moments that make us think about how we live and what our priorities are.

What makes this story even more remarkable is that it didn’t just start in a nice house in Bethlehem.  It started in a stable, a barn, a cave out the back.  That makes no sense.  Jews are honour bound to provide hospitality, especially to family.  Joseph is returning to Bethlehem because that’s where he is from.  It is his city.  So why does he have nowhere to go?  Why does Joseph have no family they can stay with?  No floor they can sleep on?

It’s a question we never ask, but was Joseph an outsider too?  Was he the strange cousin that left Bethlehem for Nazareth?  It’s hardly moving up in the world so why go?  What was it that made Joseph leave in the first place?  This wasn’t really a time when the population was mobile like today.  Carpentry is the family trade so why would Joseph leave?  And why wasn’t he welcome when he went home?

Perhaps because now he turns up with his pregnant teenage bride to be…

I wonder how many people said ‘No!’.  I wonder how many people thought first of the shame and dishonour taking in these distant relatives would bring before they even saw a woman in the first stages of labour?  That strong system of honour, bound up in religious laws, was a difficult thing to break.

So Mary and Joseph they end up in with the animals in the muck and the stink because a stranger saw their need and said ‘Yes!’.

And there, almost literally outside, Jesus was born.  God slipped into skin.  Fragile, tiny, shivering, girning skin and lived among us.

Even the prophets didn’t really get that bit, did they?  They foretold a great king of David’s line.  David was the shepherd boy who became Israel’s greatest ever king, the unlikely hero whom God raised up.

This child would renew the line.  He would bring peace, unite the kingdoms for good, rule justly and honourably.

But that’s not what God had in mind.

God chose the least as witnesses.  Not courtiers, not noblemen and women.  Shepherds were the first to know.

Shepherds?  Could there be a more inappropriate bunch to visit God?

Shepherds were the outsiders, the least religious of their time.  Their job meant that they were out in the fields or on the hills with the sheep.  They never went to church.  They couldn’t maintain the strict purity laws and ritual washing.  They were literally and metaphorically unclean.  Perfect.

There was no big show at the Temple.  No announcement at the Synagogue.  Instead there were angels on a hillside singing of God’s glory to those who were supposedly cut off from it by the religious authorities.

And the shepherds say ‘Yes!’.  They leave their sheep and rush to see what God is doing.

The story of the incarnation, the story of God taking on skin, is a story which points us firmly towards God’s priorities.  This is a story which starts in a stable, travels through the back end of nowhere, collects the waifs and strays along the way and ends up with an execution on a rubbish dump.  If we need to ask where God wants us to be this Christmas after reading that story then the only problem is us.

So, the waiting is almost over, the tree is trimmed, the parcels wrapped, well some of them are… food preparations are underway.

 

For some, Christmas brings a rush of activity to get all the last minute tasks done.

For others, Christmas brings a calm approach as they quietly prepare to welcome the Christ child again.

And for others, still, Christmas brings a desperate struggle just to survive another day.

 

Because it’s Christmas…

means little to the homeless young woman sheltering under the railway bridge, trying to keep her Christmas box wrappings dry so that she can sleep under them another night.

Because it’s Christmas…

has no impact on the heroin addict wandering the High Street checking out “opportunities” for his next fix.

Because it’s Christmas…

brings no comfort to the young parent trying to do the best for their children while sick with worry about their partner off fighting in Afghanistan.

Because it’s Christmas…

will not change a thing unless we allow the baby God to leave the swaddling behind, unless we embody Christ in our lives and work to bring peace and hope and light into all the darkness of today’s world.

Because it’s Christmas…

will not change a thing unless we allow the God of Christmas to be born in our hearts and lives this day and every day, because it’s Christmas.

God chose the least.

God chose Mary and Joseph, a stable in Bethlehem, shepherds and outcasts… and moved into their neighborhood.

And trusted them with Jesus, His only Son.  Amen

 

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Following my thoughts on preaching the other day Sue sent me information about this event:

Preaching the Gospel of Matthew

18th November 2010

10 am – 4pm Davidson’s Mains Parish Church Edinburgh

Preaching from a Gospel challenges us to read with discernment, intelligence and sensitivity, listening to what God wishes to say to us uniquely through that Gospel, today. The College of Preachers is delighted to be working with several different church denominations in Scotland to present a day conference devoted to exploring the Gospel of Matthew, featured in Year A of the Common Worship Lectionary.

Come to learn from the latest critical NT scholarship, to be homiletically refreshed by the pictures and stories of Matthew, and to be challenged anew by the Word of God.

This day is for all preachers who want to take preaching from the Gospels seriously. The event is a follow-on from the highly successful event held last year in Durham and in Edinburgh on preaching from the Gospel of Luke.

Topics include:

  • Background material for preaching Matthew
  • Reading Matthew’s material faithfully
  • Crafting a sermon from Matthew
  • Matthew’s Gospel in film and visual art
  • Hearing and critiquing a sermon from Matthew’s Gospel

Speakers for the day

Revd Kate Bruce St John’s College, Durham

Revd David Day St Nicholas Church, Durham

Prof. Larry Hurtado New College, Edinburgh

Dr Geoffrey Stevenson New College, Edinburgh

Cost: £20 – full day with mid-morning tea and coffee and a buffet lunch, including tea and coffee £15 – students including lunch £5 – students without lunch

Timing: There will be soft drinks from 9.30 for a 10.00 start and we finish at 4.00 pm prompt.

Venue: Davidson’s Mains Parish Church 1 Quality Street, Edinburgh EH4 5BB

Travel Directions at: http://dmpc.org.uk/find.htm Parking There is parking at Davidson’s Mains Church.

Safe and easy ONLINE BOOKING at: http://preachingmatthew.eventbee.com or print out and send attached Booking Form For further information phone David Bunyan on 01324 482438 or visit the College of Preachers website www.collegeofpreachers.co.uk

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Most Sundays I turn up at a church somewhere and lead worship.  Most of the time the people there know I’m coming.

Leading worship is something I enjoy but it’s also something I feel the responsibility of.  Being the person responsible for bringing together corporate worship, often for a group of people you don’t know very well, can be difficult and challenging.

I remember going to the USA in October 2001 to meet with some people from the Presbyterian Church USA.  One of my friends had spent some time in New York and told us to go and meet with the people at Madison Ave and at 5th Avenue Presbyterian Churches.

Both have large congregations, but then they are in the middle of one of the busiest pieces of real estate on the planet.  When I asked ‘why are you busy?’ everyone in both churches we met said ‘the preaching’.

I know that church isn’t about entertainment but the difference between good preaching and poor preaching is enough to put me off a church.  I wonder how many of us realise the effect our words have on the people who hear?  And how our role affects us?  I also wonder how much training, time and practice those charged with saying something each week get?

I know that some weeks people have told me that the sermon has inspired them.  I also know that there are weeks when people have been left cold.  There have been times when I’ve edited something to soften it, to tone it down, because I was scared what people would think or say.

I think Rob Bell ‘gets it’.  Do you?

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I’ve just watched David Miliband’s speech launching his bid to be Labour leader.  He seems like a good guy.  He said all the right things.  Hope, justice, equality…  But I wasn’t inspired.

Sometimes inspiration is as much how you say it as what you say.

I’m sitting thinking about a sermon for Sunday.  It’s Pentecost, one of those Sundays which is hugely important to the church.  It’s also one of those festivals which comes around every year and has had every angle of it preached on over the years.

I want to say the right things… but I also want people to be inspired.

So, in my usual Monday practice I went looking for inspiration in my usual places.

I found it on Roddy Hamilton’s site:

When those who trust love no longer wait for someone else to fix the problem of the church,

when faith is too important to hand it over to leaders to sort out,

when justice leaves behind those who think she is but a subset of the church’s work rather than the whole thing,

when followers give up on those who procrastinate about inclusion,

when diversity becomes an invite to a table of bread broken safely among people wearing their hidden truths across their foreheads,

when communion is a feast served by non-ordained women, children and men who know heaven won’t implode in doing so,

when the doctrine makers use marker pens to write ‘sorry’ over half their words,

when creeds are written in questions rather than in statements,

when dandelions become the plant of choice breaking out just where the ground has been cleansed against it,

then it is Pentecost.

Hope, justice, equality… but sometimes how you say it is just as important.

Thanks for inspiring me Roddy.

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